If these attributes remind you of a certain French Canadian welterweight, don’t be surprised - “Rumble’s” early career trajectory has gotten a lot of people thinking that he may be the next Georges St. Pierre, possibly the one to dethrone the dominant welterweight champion.
For all his hype and plentiful physical gifts, Rumble’s rise through the ranks of the welters has been slow and arduous, a far cry from the meteoric rise enjoyed by St. Pierre at a similar time in his career. A submission loss to 155'er Rich Clementi in his first fight was a big stumbling block. So was an unfortunate eye-poke induced loss to unknown Kevin Burns. He avenged that loss in a big way, but the fact remains – fans and Johnson himself are still waiting for that “statement” to be made in the Octagon, one that officially announces the transition from prospect to contender.
Against, Yoshida, he has potentially the perfect opponent against which to make that statement. The last time “Zenko” faced an opponent with a physical style like Johnson's – a big, athletic wrestler with powerful punches – it was against Josh Koscheck, and resulted in his lights being very badly shut off. Funny story – my Dad emailed me right after the Koscheck/Yoshida fight, the complete text of which read, “Great fight. Thought the Jap was dead. Not kidding.” That pretty well summed it up. If Yoshida allows himself to be drawn into a wild standup battle like he did against Koscheck, he could be in trouble – Rumble has the speed and power to match Kos, and even longer reach.
Who Takes It: The secret for Yoshida has to be to make it a technical, grinding clinch battle. He needs to slow the pace, get inside Johnson's long arms and legs, and let his black belt in Judo and greater experience grind 'Rumble” down. Johnson is a big, strong wrestler, and controlling him in the clinch will be no easy task. However, cutting so much weight could have a draining effect on Johnson, especially if he's dragged into unfamiliar territory and is fighting to keep Yoshida off him for three rounds. Yoshida also has a great submission game, and has shut off his fair share of opponents with well applied chokes. If he can get Johnson down, his wrestler's instinct and relative inexperience may work against him. Clementi caught “Rumble” in a rookie submission – Yoshida could look to do the same.
Yoshida recently joined the ever growing powerhouse of Team Jackson, and we have seen many times how the “Yoda” of MMA helps fighters fight to their strengths and re-invent themselves in the cage. Despite this, I see “Rumble” pulling off a victory, shrugging off Yoshida's clinch attempts and forcing him into exactly the kind of firefight he doesn't want to be in. Johnson by a KO in the later rounds, followed by a fight with a top 10 fighter at 170.
Joe Stevenson vs. Spencer Fisher
Joe Stevenson is a perfect example of the Greg Jackson inspired “transformation” I was just referring to. Joe Stevenson is a great wrestler, stocky and powerful, but in his bout with Diego Sanchez he was lured into a brawl where he didn't necessarily have the advantage. After joining the team down in Albuquerque, NM, the changes in his next fight were obvious. Against Nate Diaz, he avoided careless standup exchanges, stayed safely out of a Jiu-Jitsu match against the lanky brown belt, and used his strength and wrestling to shut Diaz down en route to a unanimous decision win. Textbook execution of a perfect gameplan – Stevenson looks to continue his winning ways when he takes on Spencer “The King” Fisher.
Spencer Fisher is in an interesting spot right now in the crowded UFC Lightweight division. He's a solid contender with a track record of exciting fights, but he's still not regarded as a premier, championship level fighter. A win here could go a long way towards changing this perception, as he's riding a three fight winning streak into this fight, and hasn't tasted defeat since dropping a decision to Frankie Edgar back in November of 2007. In short, one man moves his name into serious title consideration with a win and gets into the long line behind Diego Sanchez of those looking for a shot at BJ Penn. The other man gets the dreaded gatekeeper tag, and sees his dreams of title glory derailed for the foreseeable future. Ass to the fire time – but then again, when is it not in the ultra competitive UFC?
Who Takes It: There's no doubt that Spencer Fisher is tougher then shoe leather – look no further then his two classic wars with Sam Stout for proof – but so is Joe Stevenson, a fighter on the professional circuit since he was 16 years old. On the ground, Fisher possesses a very solid, underrated ground game – he once submitted current welterweight #2 Thiago Alves with a triangle. But Stevenson is no slouch here either, as he holds a black belt in BJJ from Mark Laimon and has some of the strongest guillotine chokes in the lightweight division.
We know what Fisher is capable of standing up, and he never shies away from an exchange. On the feet, I feel he has a slight advantage over Stevenson, who lacks both the striking versatility and power that Spencer brings into the cage. I also give the slight nod on the ground to “The King” - he has shown the ability to remain calm and focused in any position, no matter how vulnerable, and this grappler's poise has saved him on a number of occasions. Stevenson, while strong on the mat, has shown to be prone to mental malfunctions in the past, and the ease with which he was submitted against BJ Penn and Kenny Florian shows that, defensively, he may still need a little work.
Despite all that, I'm giving this one to “Daddy”, who I see using his Greg Jackson honed wrestling oriented offensive to shut down Fisher like he shut down Diaz. Stevenson is both physically stronger and a better wrestler then Fisher, and his control will be key to him winning a fast paced, exciting Unanimous Decision.
Cain Velasquez vs. Ben Rothwell
Originally slated to be a title eliminator between Velasquez and Shane Carwin, the match was changed some weeks ago when Carwin became the latest winner of the Brock Lesnar lottery and moved into the position of #1 contender. This left Velasquez to welcome IFL heavyweight champion “Big” Ben Rothwell into the Octagon, a puzzling bit of matchmaking the UFC has desperately been trying to get over as a legit, called for contest. T.V ads for UFC 104 have called Rothwell the “biggest fight” of Velasquez's career, a questionable assertion at best – Cheik Kongo is a much bigger name and threat then Ben Rothwell, to me anyways.
Nevertheless, the fight goes on, and Velasquez will look to further build his case for a title shot. A win over Rothwell could very well seal the deal, although it looks as though Cain will have to wait in line again, this time behind “Minotauro” Nogueria. All this must frustrate the undefeated Velasquez, although he has only himself to blame. Despite earning a unanimous decision victory over Kongo in his last outing, the fight raised more questions then it answered, especially when it comes to Velasquez's standup. He was rocked very badly at several points in the Kongo fight, and while he showed great composure and recovery, its remains the case that every time the fight was on the feet, Velasquez was inevitably in trouble.
In Rothwell, Velasquez will face an opponent who is as big, if not bigger then him, and possesses a solid, well rounded skillset. Rothwell doesn't have the explosive athleticism and wrestling of Velasquez, but he brings a solid, MFS honed game into the cage, and possesses the power to hurt Velasquez should he connect. By his pre-fight comments, Rothwell seems very certain that Velasquez's wrestling wont be able to dominate him like it has dominated all his other opponents. It's a dubious assertion, but if true, it could force Velasquez into a standup battle where his raw power could once again be matched and beaten by a more technical, harder hitting fighter.
Who Takes It: It all comes down to Velasquez, and if he has improved the holes in his game from the last fight. If the fight hits the floor, I see Velasquez dominating, regardless of Rothwell's size advantage. His natural strength and tremendous work ethic – harped upon by all his training partners - means Velasquez will attain dominant position no matter how the fight hits the floor, and I don't see Rothwell being able to catch Velasquez in anything. Rothwell's only chance is to keep the fight standing up. If he can live up to his talk here, the fight becomes a whole new ballgame. I'm hoping this happens, so we can see Velasquez's standup truly tested. I just don't think it will – Velasquez via TKO due to strikes on the ground, 2nd round.
Maurico Rua vs. Lyoto Machida
I've annoyed my friends with how many times I've said this, but I would give just about anything to be Lyoto Machida's manager right now. The dude is on the verge of a huge explosion in interest and popularity, similar to Royce Gracie in the early 1990's - the enigmatic, traditional martial arts badass who looks like he jumped out of a video game and fights almost the same way. He also happens to be the reigning champion in the marquee division of MMA, one that has not had a champion successfully defend his title since the Chuck Liddell era. All eyes now turn to this fight, and the age old fight maxim – to be a true champion, you must defend your title. Can Machida do what no one has done since August of 2007 – defend the UFC LHW title?
It's ironic that the first man to challenge for his title is the man who (for the time being, anways) ended Chuck Liddell's fighting career and kickstarted his dancing career – Maurico “Shogun” Rua. “Shogun's” UFC career has been far from ideal – he dropped his debut to Forrest Griffin and looked almost embarrassingly poor in victory over Mark Coleman. It was only in dispatching Liddell this past April that fans saw the Rua of old, well conditioned with a killer instinct, and it remains to be seen if Rua has permanently shaken off his problems and regained his past form. In his Pride heyday, “Shogun” was a monster, running roughshod over the competition from 2005-2007 to become arguably the #1 Light-Heavyweight in the world. Now he's one win away from regaining that accolade.
To do it, he'll have to do what no one in 14 fights has been able to do – find a chink in Machida's seemingly invincible Shotokan Karate style. It's a tall order, as Machida has not displayed much in the way of weakness in his fight career so far. His standup style is both unpredictable and devastating, combining lightning fast reflexes with incredible versatility. Every opponent who challenges him on the feet inevitably ends up looking confused – devastating strikers like Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans, hitting nothing but air while getting picked apart. He also has great wrestling, effective Muay Thai, and a black belt in BJJ. Simply put, if “Shogun” is to win, he will literally have to invent the gameplan to defeat Machida – one does not exist at present.
Who Takes It: To win, “Shogun” will have to rely on his greatest strengths – his Chute Boxe honed Muay Thai skills and his strong submission game. He can't let Machida lure him into fighting his kind of fight, and has to impose his will from the opening bell. He should test Machida in the clinch, if he can get close - his Thai clinch has silenced elite fighters in the past, and could be his only road to victory if the fight stays on the feet. I'm not discounting Shogun's standup skills here, but if he ends up in a kickboxing match with Machida he will invariably lose, as Machida is a master at breaking down opponents who chase him and play his game. On the ground, it's a toss up, plain and simple – Shogun has some great submissions under his belt, but if he can successfully plant Machida on his back and work a sub game, well, he'll be the first one to ever do that to “The Dragon” in the UFC.
I say Machida by a KO or TKO in the championship rounds, in a fight that all comes down to who imposes their will and gameplan on the other. Lyoto is a master at doing this – to become champion, Rua will, to quote Kenny Florian, have to “kill the master”.